"Playing A Jazz Samba"
Tuscany Light by M. Kelly Lombardi (Westbrook, Maine: Moon Pie Press, 2006) 28 pages. ISBN 0-9785860-1-8. $6.95
I write this not as a dispassionate review but as an assertion of the virtues of the last work of a poet close to many of us in Maine: M. Kelly Lombardi. In September, we lost her to cancer. From her cottage on the ocean in Down East Maine, she had run the annual Roque Bluffs Poetry Festival, written a poetry column in the Machias Valley News Observer, taught a poetry class in the Sunrise Senior College of the University of Maine at Machias, and promoted poetry in many other ways. She found time almost every day to write poems, and late in life she published some of her best work in a book entitled Tuscany Light.
The title came from Kelly's love of San Gimignano in Italy, where she repeatedly visited a monastery. In exchange for a sparsely furnished room in which to sleep and write poetry, Kelly cooked for the monks, for she practiced with skill and passion the culinary as well as the poetic arts. In relatively short, lyrically descriptive poems, she captured—and helps us experience—what she saw and felt in what she called "that clear Tuscany light that soothes my spirit."
To me, the greatest virtue of Kelly's work is its sensuousness. In the poems, she admires Tuscany's "sun drenched landscapes, twisted vines, and fertile olive trees." She listens to the "plunk, soosh, ping, splash, plink" of rain "before it slides off the roof onto the cobblestone street to dance down the hill to the porto." She makes friends with an "old Alsatian dog—grey masked and stiff legged." She buys apples "freshly picked, damp, and sweet smelling." She drinks cappuccino "hot and fragrant with dribs of foam sliding down the cup's side." Her description in the poem "Market Day" of fruits, cheeses, sausages, and their cheerful sellers makes one long to be there. And one feels one is there when she describes preparing a meal:
Slowly, carefully, I peel
the small Forelli pears
my fingers sticky with
their golden juices
until I have twelve ready.
I put 3 cloves in the
bottom of each one and set them
in the deep skillet. I put shreds
of tangerine peel
into the skillet with them,
slowly drizzle in thick fragrant
Tuscany honey, pour
in the half-bottle of young
Chianti and set them to simmer
for dinner dessert tonight
with amoretti and tiny cups
of rich black coffee sweetened
with squares of dark chocolate.
Kelly's poems are not typical of our time—they are not metaphoric, intellectual, allusive, or obscure; they do not strive to be complex, profound, epiphanous. They thoughtfully employ rich descriptive detail to recreate the feeling of valued experience. Their intent is to give pleasure. And they succeed.
The Night We Danced With the Raylettes by Charles Rossiter (Kanona, NY: Foothills, 2007), 57 pages. ISBN: 0-941053-28-8 $14.
For those of us fortunate to have been there in the 60's, Charles Rossiter is a repository. For those unfortunate enough to have missed the 60's, this book is a text. Heaven's yes, the Raelettes, ne: Cookies, beguiled us into thinking it was OK to be aroused by women of color until, of course, Ray Charles chased them into the background with: "Baby, what'd I say?"
Or as in Coffeehouse Days we remember that:
"America was too clean for us,
we craved the weird beauty of dirt…"
In the 60's men wanted to make their own way toward manhood; and especially, not along the paths our depression-oriented parents wanted.
As pleasant as these college recollections are, I am certain that some readers will take umbrage at the many sexual references, but, that is the way life was, is, on campus. These references are unlike the magazine magnate's image of today. Hopped up on little blue pills and presuming the exotic, the magnate does not change the relationship. It is simpler to quickly change the model.
Rossiter, on the other hand, tells us how it was even if the outcome was less than desired:
"she made it clear
I'd made my bid and lost…"
Or when his Nan made it clear when she found panties in his wash: "these must belong to your roommate Fred…"
All in all, when one attempts a book of college memories, it is difficult not to sound dated—a stringing along of anecdotes. Rossiter's book avoids becoming dated because his unpretentious language sings along with the strong urgency of a born storyteller. The reader can actually believe:
"The moon was up
And Baltimore never looked so good."
even if the reader's own recollections of Baltimore aren't that good.
Where First Words Float
Boat of Two Shores: Poems by Richard Miles(Machias, ME: University of Maine at Machias Press, 2007). 61 pp., ISBN: 13-978-0-9794848-0-3 $15
There's more than one way to read a new book of poems, but one tried and true method is to begin with the title piece. In the case of Richard Miles' first collection, this mode of entry proves instructional. The poem "Boat of two shores" introduces us to the poet's style: a no-punctuation series of lines and stanzas where meaning comes in and out of focus as we follow clues to circumstance. It's an approach to shaping verse reminiscent of W.S. Merwin.
"I rest on your prow rocking" the poem opens, and we enter a situation of person and boat or person and boat-as-person, for this vessel quickly takes on human qualities. It breathes; it has eyes; it appears to provide comfort to a figure, the "I" in the poem, "with tired worlds in me/and a blind eye." The poem ends as many of Miles' poems do, with a leap, in this case to "the edge of the world/where first words float."
Often the title is the first line of a poem, a way for Miles to pull us into the flow of the poem to follow. "We happen," for example, starts us off on a nifty riff on birth and death and twins.
upon the word reviviscence in the first line
just as we are choosing our parents.
The imagery can be unusual and/or surreal—"slitting chickadees," "suctorial mouth," "bone spathe of longing," "a sieved sneaker." Miles emulates Robert Creeley on occasion, investigating language, as in the wonderful final stanza of "A Kind of Writing."
At times, the poetry seems personally obscure. The poem "There is," for example, appears to be a childhood memory of a father getting ready for the day while a son listens on the floor below. "My heart still beats his steps," notes the speaker, then describes sliding down a "mossy trough/backwards into the pool." The poem ends with a question and a paradox: "where will we be on our different courses//the hammer steps and steps with wings."
This kind of abstruse narrative can be liberating, allowing the reader to make up his or her own story. At other times, it can read like a kind of spacey Buddhism, enigma for enigma's sake. Indeed, one yearns to hear Miles read aloud these poems, prefacing each by a few guiding thoughts.
This reader gravitated to poems with a more direct address. Favorites include "Day's ember," "Embryo," "Whenever I go," "We come down" and this gem, titled "Orion":
there he is still
but sliding south
stalking while drifting
huge and transparent
my ghost with bones.
Miles lives in Harrington, Maine, and one senses a bit of that milieu in a few poems in Boat of Two Shores. In that regard, he is kin of Theodore Enslin, master poet from nearby Milbridge, who writes in an abstract manner that is nonetheless grounded in his surroundings. Both poets challenge us to understand their uncommon worlds. The rewards are in the reading.
Texture & Flavor
The Constant Velocity of Trains by Lea Deschenes (Murfreesboro, TN: Write Bloody Publishing, 2006), paper 80 pages. ISBN 978-0-9815213-1-2 $15
Lea Deschenes' poetry jumps right into the personal nature of a fast moving universe. Poems in The Constant Velocity of Trains range from the every day simplicity of bad sleep in "Words of One Syllable or Less" to academic allusions to mythology, literature, even physics.
Her images have texture and flavor. "Landscape," which lies somewhere between mythology and science fiction, concludes with the woman "in the arms of the banyan tree" believing "if she understood her own survival,/ she could pour smashed fruit back into its skin…"
Immediately on the opposite page, Deschenes writes a brief liturgy addressed to "…Consensus, who may not exist…" leaving her reader to interpret in whatever religious terms make sense at the time. The poet asks this uncertainly imaged deity "…who weeps dust green…" to "leaf my fists,/ petal my mouth," keeping sense imagery vivid.
The poet's voice and the voices of her characters are active with very few uses of "there is." She bounces around the world from her own bedroom (not saying exactly where that is) to Atlantis.
Notes at the back of the book say the title poem is based on text from Einstein. Although I didn't need to know that and enjoyed the poem as a reminder of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Coney Island of the Mind poems back in the 1960s, at least the publisher kept such notes far from the printed poems.
Some of Deschenes' poems are challenging, and call for multiple readings. But the sense of her imagination comes through and enticed me to read more even when I needed a magnifying glass.
The book's cover with a black and white moving train and quiet gray with subdued brown and green backgrounds gives little hint of the color inside. Too bad the small, light type is so hard on the eyes that I didn't even bother to read the forward by Ilya Kaminsky.
Early Settlement and Other Poems by Charles Churchill (Center Ossipee, NH: Beech River Books, 2006), 61 pages. Paper.
ISBN 0-9776514-8-7 $14.
Early Settlement and Other Poems: Spoken Word by Charles Churchill
(Beech River Books, 2006) ISBN 0-9776514-9-5
Curse you Robert Frost and Edgar Lee Masters! Having broken ground and built the edifice of rural American poetry so high that we must all stand in your shadows!
It is hard to read any poems about the people, the landscapes, the seasons, the tension between village and city, and the hidden domestic outrages of rural life without longing for the terse and fiercely emotional craft of those old men. With the eye of one chancing on a deer yard in winter and not disturbing what he found there, yet noting the quiet disappearance, Charles Churchill has joined the ranks of New Englanders who cast their considerate, perceptive gaze upon the land and foliage and know what each variation means. Yet, knowing by itself makes for plain poetry.
Among the personae Churchill calls forth in the title section of his book we find those remembered for who they were or what they did—or did not do—but we become acquainted with all from outside. Eye and ear and voice work to get them right, but it is always from the viewpoint of the observer, and that typical New England perspective leaves it cold. Even the heat of anger and the bitterness of retribution settle at a distance. While these are not intellectual poems, they remain poems of the mind without the emotional charge that exceptional poetry demands.
If voice was supposed to be the hall mark of 20th century American poetry, it was not supposed to be the same voice for all. Yet for many, the voice to emulate above all is that of Frost. It should be no surprise that Churchill's voice on both the page and the compact disc is even and measured. It covers rough or smooth ground in the same measured phrases. It strides implacably to its revelations and conclusions. It is the voice of a strong man, sure of step and unwavering in speech. But regularly lining out statements on the page assists in subduing experience just as the recording has somewhat muffled the reading.
Perhaps what I miss most is not lack of emotion, but the wonder of surprise. All is muted. To be sure, this is an authentic voice, but even after reading and listening, I cannot detect in its range the sly irony, self-deprecating wit, or cosmic aloneness of—yes, I have to say it again—Frost.
We seem to forget that our nostalgia for 19th century New England has been more than captured by Currier and Ives. Those artists created it. Their images broadcast across the continent became so endearing because they represented what people wanted to have. Subsequent language artists, being poets in their 20th century ways, frequently put a harder edge on those memories nobody ever had. Thus, we now have poets mining their experience to produce, not gold, but something which, while shining, has no great value. Packaging it in a jewel case is no enhancement.
Somewhat the same may be said for illustrations—what the book calls graphite images—by Dawn Marion. The strongest are the rural landscapes. Those of people seem more primitive, flatter, stiff, as though the people they depict are not inhabited, but emotionless.
The book is well-made with clear presentation and high production values. Many of these poems begin well. Many have strong lines. But alas, not always. Comparisons aside, this is mostly competent blank verse, dependent on incident and imagery, which stretches occasionally for the sublime, but usually lands in the commonplace.
Sometimes You Can Judge a Book by Its Cover
Echoes of Eternity, Francine L. Trevens (New York: TnT Classic Books, 2007), 80 pages, paper. ISBN 978-1-1886586-09-3 $16.95
Echoes of Eternity offers many challenges to its readers. Designed by the author, it is a badly-made book. The cover has a water color painting of a mostly-dead tree with the title in a shadowed and repeated font. The poems are arranged in three sections, "Murmurs," "Whispers," and "Resoundings," with an index and acknowledgements at the end. The text of the poems is in a hand font, and each poem title is in shadowed caps— the equivalent of a psychedelic scream. Some of the poems are coded with asterisks with no clue on the page what they correspond to. One discovers eventually they are keyed to the acknowledgements page. Reading this book gave me a headache.
At first, my co-editor thought the author had been victim to a predatory publisher of the $60 anthology ilk. But TnT Classic Books is a small co-op press the author is associated with that publishes mostly obscure off-broadway plays. "T'n'T Classic Books are explosive" reads their logo, with an emanation coming from a place that suggests passing gas, not detonating something in the mind.
It is extremely difficult to get a book of poems published. It is not uncommon to trot a manuscript around to dozens of publishers before finally being accepted. Rejection is a tough but necessary process and can be very instructive, often leading to a much better book.. With the proliferation of self-publishing opportunities available now, anything you're willing to pay for can be printed.
I do not doubt the sincerity of the author, Francine L. Trevens. Her writing exudes feel-good rhythms and rhymes, but rarely does the verse ascend to poetry. Dana Gioia has written in "The Anonymity of the Regional Poet," "… a writer is best judged by how successfully (s)he works with the material (s)he includes than by what (s)he omits."
Sadly, there is not much substance in the writing. If Ms Trevens left book design to someone more qualified and went to work in earnest on her writing, she might produce something at least interesting. Lines like: "Well might the willow weep," "It's we who journey," "Frazzled daffodil, sole survivor," and "Welcome home sad traveler" do not fulfill their promise but get bogged down, enslaved to meter, any potential magic lost in telling not showing, loaded with heartfelt sentiment and attempts to make sense of an often mean and befuddling world. We all struggle with universal themes, aiming for the most artful use of language— in this, the book falls far short.
Poetry for Ms Trevens is a hobby, not literature. This is a book an author might share with family and friends but should not have been let out of the barn and set loose on the public.
City of Insomnia by Victor D. Infante (Murfreesboro, TN: WriteBloody, 2008) 99 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-0981521329 $15
We used to have an English teacher at Hick High School here in the county who never tired of saying, "Literature lifts life to the level of consciousness." So what do you do with literature that lowers life to less?
First off, WriteBloody Books is an indie press with 20 titles mostly by people who hope to sell a bunch of books because they go around the country performing in bars, coffee houses, even colleges and theaters when they get the chance.
But when you fall for the pitch and buy this book then wake up in your bed with the book by your head, they'll be a thousand miles away. Do you really want to look this one in the eye when it repeats the same lines over breakfast? It will—because repetition is common in this book, as are supposedly clever non-sequiters, and conclusions that anyone with half a wit can arrive at before the time it takes to read the next line.
Has this guy never heard of bathos? (To cite old Noah: 1. a ludicrous descent from the exalted or lofty to the commonplace. 2. insincere pathos; sentimentality; mawkishness; 3. triteness or triviality in style). I halted briefly at "insincere pathos." I'm afraid this guy's pathos is sincere.
Check the conclusion of "Another American July"
Outside, the muscle cars screech and rev
their engines pointlessly.
Vader, the sandwich maker and I are all delighted,
possibly for different reasons.
Or this one from "God's Country"
There once was a barn
behind the motel parking lot
but they tore it down,
vagabonds were sleeping there.
And this from "New Year's Day"
We will be small and vital, like marmosets.
We will be the remote control,
be cinema verite and Percoset and tinsel
When the trembling has passed,
has left you cool, and brittle,
like a teacup.
Just to clear the palate, try this little contrast from "Against Jealousy," selected at random from a copy of The Complete Poems of Ben Johnson I found on a recent ride in Canada:
Love's sickness, and his noted want of worth,
Seek doubting men to please;
I ne'er will owe my health to a disease.
That's how poets should turn at life and speak to it with art. It's how to repress the ennui and to craft language, even if culture is bearing down on you like a runaway coach and four or a tourist bus on a downtown street.
So be careful when you go out tonight. One of these forlorn performance poets could catch you up in the night's ecstasy, but you won't be near so happy when you look into its eyes in the morning, or worse, have it shouting over and over in your ear.